Words by: Adam Allen
The BMW 5-series is 48 years old. It was back in 1972 when shoppers seeking a sporty midsized luxury sedan first encountered the model, and since then it has enjoyed the consistency that comes along with the passing of decades in being mentioned among the segment’s best every year since. It is a generally accepted fact that the 5’er peaked in its E39 generation when pretty much every model from the entry-level 525i up to the legendary M5 was chockablock with excellence.
While it is true that the 5-series has been the recipient of glowing praise over the years, the deafening applause has subsided gradually ever since those E39s first bowed in 1995. The reason? Some claim that the model range has lost its way as the torchbearer of luxury sport sedans, that it somehow forgot how to have fun. We have borne witness to this trend, and we agree that at some point the 5-series quietly swapped its Grateful Dead t-shirt and bellbottom jeans for a plaid button-up and some chinos. It has become more mature and less frisky. But that doesn’t mean it’s forgotten its roots; not at all. While the 5 may have traded some spunk for refinement and comfort it can still dance the tarmac boogie better than most of its peers.
The centerpiece of the dynamic spread put forth by the 540i we tested is without a doubt the turbocharged 3.0 litre inline six. We have lost count how many times we’ve gushed with adulation towards this engine, and BMW’s press materials simply refer to is as ‘iconic’- we can get behind that. There are scant few brands out there owe so much of their success to an engine and BMW is surely one of them. This is a powerplant that does everything well, going from silky smooth and demure to snarling and serving up copious speed. The ZF 8-speed automatic it’s paired with is like the Sriracha hot sauce of transmissions- it goes well with everything its paired with and it suits the 540i perfectly. It seems to make more power than the 335 horsepower on the spec sheet would suggest and is quick enough to keep up with everything but the most serious sports cars. Still, we wonder if BMW missed an opportunity to install the equally proficient but more powerful B58 engine from the M340i. While more power is always welcome, we can’t say that we missed the 47 horsepower.
For this refresh, BMW equips the 540i with a 48-volt ‘mild hybrid’ system to complement the engine and transmission duo. The system has two basic principles: the first is that it fills in any gaps of power that occur while the turbo is spooling up and two, it helps to make for the smoothest engine start/stop system we have ever experienced on a BMW. It’s so seamless that we didn’t bother shutting off as we do in the pre-flight routine we perform in pretty much every car we test. It’ll also shut off the engine as you brake to a stop which sounds a bit odd but really works in the real world.
Speaking of the slightly odd, here’s one for you: When you spec the M-Performance Package ($2,000) which our tester did have, you get red brake calipers. That in of itself is not weird at all- so many brands paint their brake calipers in red that it has gotten to become ubiquitous. BMW always used a blue hue to denote their high performance brakes and over the years we and have gotten used to it. It’s a small detail but you know how we love to delve into the minutiae. It looks good, but we never quite got used to it, doing a double take each time we walked up to our 540i tester.
Step inside the cockpit and you’ll notice that the infotainment display has grown, now clocking in at 12.3 inches. iDrive 7 is the software employed to manage everything from the Wi-Fi hotspot to the ambient lighting and works just as well as it has in years past. There’s some new driver assistance tech that comes standard kit, and BMW has joined the personal assistant party and saying “Hey BMW” will allow you to access various commands. We discovered some cool bits like being able to raise and lower windows with our voices. It also has the ability to learn the driver’s routine, like opening the driver side window to access the key fob interface of your underground parking if you live in a condo. Neat.
Lastly, the styling has been updated too if subtlety was the vibe BMW was going for, they nailed it. The front facia gets a few nips and tucks and the headlights are squintier and feature BMW’s hockey stick DRL design language. The taillights have a similar design motif and both ends look their best at night with the LED lights offering striking illumination.
While it may be 48 years young but less playful than its predecessors, BMW’s 2021 540i has stayed true to the recipe that has garnered it the respect of those who like their luxury sedans with a healthy dose of sporting DNA.
2021 BMW 540i xDrive Sedan– Specifications
- Price as tested: $86,600
- Body Type: 4 door, 5 passenger Sedan
- Powertrain Layout: Front engine/all-wheel drive
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- Engine: 3.0 litre twin-turbo inline six, DOHC, 24 valves
- Horsepower: 335 @ 5,000 rpm
- Torque (lbs-ft.): 332 @ 1,500 rpm
- Curb weight: 1,823 kg (4,019 lbs)
- Observed Fuel Consumption: 9.8L/100km (24 mpg)